Although better known as a culinary herb used as a substitute for cilantro in Vietnamese, India, Thai, and Caribbean cuisine, Eryngium foetidum has a rich tradition of use in folk medicine as well. Also known as spiritweed or fitweed, the plant was believed by some to be effective in preventing epileptic fits or seizures, although only one study has found evidence of any anticonvulsant properties in extracts of the plant. It has also been used in inflammatory conditions like earache, fevers and burns. The plant is sometimes used as a treatment for high blood pressure, constipation, asthma, stomachache, intestinal worms, infertility, snake bites, malaria and diarrhea as well. While most of these applications are unsubstantiated by any medical research as of 2011, the mild painkilling and anti-inflammatory properties of Eryngium foetidum have withstood scientific inquiry, increasing interest in the plant.
A particular fraction of the essential oil of Eryngium foetidum has been studied as a potential treatment for parasitic trypanosomes, nematodes, bacteria and fungi, for which it has since been patented. Known as Eryngial, this extract has been the subject of considerable research by Dr. Ralph Robinson of the University of the West Indies. In particular, this product has shown significant levels of efficacy in the treatment of infection by the nematode Strongyloides stercoralis.
The gentle action of the plant has made it popular as a treatment for cold, fever, vomiting and influenza in children. Its soothing properties are believed to relieve some of the pain and gastrointestinal discomfort of these conditions, while Eryngium foetidum's gastric stimulating properties are used to offset the loss of appetite caused by illness. When giving the plant to children, the roots and leaves are usually made into an infusion and mixed with honey or sugar to make it more palatable.
The diverse array of medical uses ascribed to Eryngium foetidum are not likely to be the product of any single, pharmacologically active chemical. While some research has identified stigmasterol as a bioactive anti-inflammatory compound within the plant, it is likely that E-2-dodecenal and several isomers of trimethylbenzaldehyde may also be pharmacologically active. Eryngium foetidum is also rich in a number of different plant sterols that may potentiate the activity of these compounds.
Eryngium foetidum, while popular in the countries that use it as a culinary herb, is remarkably rare in Europe and mainland North America. Those that wish to use the herb in these cuisines are usually required to grow the plant from seed at home. Increased immigration from these countries, however, is increasing the demand for this spice in some areas. Consequently, it can occasionally be found at specialty grocery stores in some major metropolitan areas.